This book was given to me by Jimena, a Mexican woman who attended the English PEN ‘Free Speech: found in translation’ night-class course I finished a few weeks back. She looked apologetic as she got The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao out of her bag and handed it over.

‘I’m not sure if you’ll want to include it,’ she said. ‘You see, he writes in English.’

A discussion ensued about whether Junot Diaz, now a creative writing professor at MIT, was an acceptable Dominican Republic choice. My classmates wanted to know where he was born (Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic), where he lived now (the US), and how much of his childhood he’d spent in the country (four years plus holiday visits to relatives from what I can make out). It seemed each one of us had slightly different criteria for judging Diaz’s pedigree.

Personally, I wasn’t sure I would include Diaz. I had several other names in the frame for the Dominican Republic and, excellent though I was sure the Pulitzer prize-winning novel was, I was intrigued to find out about them.

Then two things happened: quite by chance, our course leader Sophie Mayer referred to Diaz’s novel during the session, a coincidence which appealed to my sense of serendipity, and I discovered that the prose work of the other Dominican Republic writers on the list, including Arambilet and Pedro Mir, was by no means readily available in English. Time being of the essence, I decided to give the Diaz a go. It would be a sort of test of where that mysterious boundary line of nationality goes in literature, I thought.

Roving back and forth between the US and the Dominican Republic, the novel follows Oscar, a sci-fi and fantasy nerd and son of a Dominican mother, growing up in the eighties in a rough neighbourhood in New Jersey. Overweight, lonely and desperate for attention from girls, Oscar embarks on a series of excruciating attempts to win the favours of the local beauties, watched first by his rebellious sister Lola and later his college room-mate Yunior.

But it turns out that Oscar’s misery is by no means a one-off. As he unfolds his family’s backstory, Diaz reveals an intricate tale of torture, betrayal, murder and shattered dreams that stretches all the way up to the Dominican Republic’s erstwhile dictator Trujillo and will, quite literally, blow Oscar’s mind.

It’s interesting that a discussion of nationality nearly turned me off reading this book, because the relationship of the individual to cultural identity is one of its central themes. Right from its Derek Walcott epigraph, ending ‘either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation’, the novel explores how heritage informs, shapes and constrains our choices. Everything from the family fear of being under an old Fuku (curse) and the fact that ‘in Santo Domingo a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow’, through to Lola’s fraught relationship with her mother and Oscar’s relatives’ scorn at his failure with girls can be traced back to a sense of what Dominican life is or should be.

The threads weaving together the personal and national are further tightened by a series of zestful footnotes that run through the book, giving the narrator’s personal gloss on history. Describing aspects of Trujillo’s reign of terror, ‘one of the longest, most damaging US-backed dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere (and if we Latin types are skillful at anything it’s tolerating US-backed dictators, so you know this was a hard-earned victory, the chilenos and the argentinos are still appealing)’, they present a furiously witty engagement with the way politics impacts on individual lives. Feisty, shocking and only occasionally annoying, they grab the predominantly American readers Diaz clearly has in mind by the scruff of the neck and make them acknowledge what has happened, often giving them a parting jab in the ribs – ‘You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the US occupied Iraq either’.

Although Jimena was worried that the fact the  novel was written in English rather than Spanish might weaken its DR claims, the language of the book is shot through with a sense of Dominican heritage. Packed with Spanish slang and even complete sentences in the language, the narrative is raucous with the richness of its cultural references and the conflicts and contradictions these create.

The result is a powerful, irreverent and thoroughly engrossing exploration of identity and how the particular time and place we are born and grow up in shape who we are. If anything, Diaz’s exposure to both US and Dominican society sharpens his perception of the DR. It is as though for both him and his characters, the transition between the two cultures is only truly possible once they have immersed themselves in, understood and made peace with their Dominican heritage. As Lola puts it, ‘you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.’

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber, 2009)

I knew this was going to be tricky when Catherine Teya, president of the Central African Republic Association of Europe (SEWA Europe), struggled to suggest a book from CAR that I could read in English. However, it wasn’t until I did a bit more detailed research into the state that I began to understand quite what the challenges were.

Riddled with unrest and pockets of lawlessness since it gained independence from France in 1960, CAR is one of the planet’s least developed and most isolated countries. Indeed, as award-winning photojournalist Spencer Platt explains in his 2008 dispatch from the country, it has to all intents and purposes been abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the world. With frequent coups and attempted coups forcing crisis after crisis on its impoverished citizens, most of whom will not live to see their 45th birthdays,  it’s small wonder that very few books by writers in the country have made it into print in recent decades, let alone been translated into English.

However, although she was unable to recommend anything directly, Catherine Teya was nothing if not helpful. She sent me a number of links that might assist me in my quest, among them the website of Solidarité Franco Africaine, which features an overview of Central African writers. Perhaps one of these might have been translated in to English, she suggested.

As luck would have it, sloshing about in Amazon’s dankest recesses, I stumbled on a 1970 translation of a novel by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, one of the writers on Solidarité Franco Africaine’s list. There was no information, no summary and no picture. The book was in an ‘unknown binding’ and I could tell nothing about it beyond the date the English version was published, its title and the number of pages it had. Still, given the lack of anything else to go on, it had to be worth a shot.

First published in French in 1966, Les Randonnées de Daba (or Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui as the English version has it) follows young Daba as he leaves his parents’ village to visit friends and relatives around CAR and further his education. Moving between the Westernised milieu of his French boarding school and the rich rural traditions of the communities he stays with during his holidays, Daba develops a love for his country, as well as a desire to explore the rest of the world – and has some gripping adventures along the way.

Daba’s is a culture where storytelling is part of the furniture. From the very opening lines, in which Daba’s mother tells the tale of the will-o’-the-wisp bird, fielding her son’s comments and chiding him for questioning her skill as a narrator, the power of the oral tradition is clear. This comes across in the novel too: the text is frequently interspersed with stories told by adults the boy meets and the narrative itself has an organic feel, as though Bamboté is sitting just across from us, developing the story as he goes along.

This instinct for storytelling also manifests itself in the evocative descriptions that fill the book. Whether he is describing the ‘sparkling white wings of insects, looking like thousands of stars, [that] glittered in the headlights’ on a drive through the jungle, the way a crocodile’s tail ‘would suddenly spank the water and send a great sheet of white spray up into the air’, or Daba’s eerie sense of being followed when returning home from a day spent tracking lions with his friends, Bamboté is a master of transporting his readers into the midst of the places he describes.

Indeed, for all its exotic crocodile hunts and days off school because of prowling panthers, the book has a profoundly nostalgic feel. This is partly down to the author’s skill, which makes us yearn for a place we have probably never been (the presence of Daba’s French penfriend Guy throughout much of the book suggests that it was probably aimed at a European rather than a CAR readership), but it is also because of the look and feel of the book. With its illustrations sprawling over the pages like jungle creepers and the smell of its old pages, it reminded me of the books my mother gave me from her own childhood.

Now, 42 years after it was published, Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui and the handful of Bamboté’s other translated novels offer a rare window on a much-neglected and surely now much-changed corner of the globe. I wonder how long it will be before English-language readers get a chance to take another look.

Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui (Les Randonnées de Daba) by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, translated from the French by John Buchanan-Brown (Pantheon, 1970)

Kyrgyzstan: a lonely road

August 28, 2012

I’ve written before about one-author countries: states from which the work of only one writer seems to have been translated into English and/or received recognition on the world-literature stage. But the landlocked country of Kyrgyzstan, which apparently enjoys the distinction of being farther from the ocean than any other state in the world, is certainly up there with the best of them. Anglophone readers wanting to sample Kyrgyz literature will run up against the work of the country’s most famous author Chingiz Aitmatov, whose 1957 novel Jamilia made his name – and not much else.

So far, all my efforts to find translated alternatives to Aitmatov’s books have run into dead ends. If you know of another Kyrgyz writer whose work has been translated (or you know of someone who should be translated and want to get the word out), please leave a comment and tell me about them. In the meantime, partly because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and partly – I’ll confess – because I really liked the picture on the 2007 Telegram edition, here’s what I thought of Jamilia.

Framed as an artist’s explanation of the story behind one of his paintings, the novel sets out the circumstances of a surprising love affair that springs up between the artist-narrator Seit’s sister-in-law Jamilia and disabled war veteran Daniyar back in Seit’s childhood. Charged with carting grain across the Kyrgyz plains to the railway station because the healthy men, including Jamilia’s husband, are away fighting on the front, Jamilia and Seit amuse themselves by teasing and tormenting the awkward Daniyar. But as time goes by, a deep bond springs up between the three of them that will make it impossible for them to stay in the traditional village that is their home.

A strong sense of obligation pervades the opening section of the book. Everything in the community, where ‘happiness[...] belongs to those who retain their honour and conscience’ and Seit’s father is ‘duty-bound to the spirits of his ancestors’, is codified and ranked, to the point where there are particular forms of address for each relative and even letters to and from the front must be written and read according to a set of rules.

Beneath this rigid and formal surface, however, strong currents surge. From the sinister sexuality of the lone men who eye Jamilia, to the horrors of war that ‘formed a hard clot deep in [Daniyar's] heart’ and keep him silent, the books is full of unspoken intensity. Often sublimated into passionate outpourings on the beauty of the natural world and haunting singing from Daniyar, these hidden seams of feeling imbue tiny actions with huge significance. A look, a touch, a head rested on a shoulder reverberate like the blasts of the weapons being fired far away across the steppe in this hushed, restrained world.

And so it is that, by observing the silent drama playing out between the two young adults, Seit discovers his passion for expressing unspoken emotions through art. ‘Words were not necessary; besides, words can never quite express a person’s feelings’, he explains, going on to describe his desire to capture ‘the truth, the truth of life, the truth of those two people’, in what is surely one of the most subtle and touching depictions of the development of an artistic sense we have.

Now and then the flashbacks feel stilted. In addition, some of Aitmatov’s more hackneyed tropes wear a little thin. Personally I could have done without the storm the night Jamilia and Daniyar consummate their love.

Overall, though, this is an extraordinarily beautiful book. If this novel is at all indicative of the quality of Kyrgyz writing, it’s definitely time we English-language readers had access to some more.

Jamilia (Djamilia) by Chingiz Aitmatov, translated from the Russian by James Riordan (Telegram, 2007)

One of the great things about embarking on a world literature adventure like this is all the fellow literary globetrotters you meet along the way. There are lots of projects out there and each of them is slightly different, shaped by the personality and interests of the reader behind them.

Some people are only reading books set in particular countries; others are including poetry, plays and factual history books. Some are travelling from state to state as you would on a map, while others are leaping around all over the shop. And in addition to the hardcore nutters among us who set ourselves numerical and, in my case, time limits, there are many people who intend that the adventure should take them several years, if not decades.

It’s always a pleasure to hear from other literary explorers, not least because they can often be a great source of ideas for countries I’ve yet to tackle. So when Paul in Canada responded to my Halfway Appeal with some suggestions from his own Reading Around the World project, I was intrigued to hear about them. In particular, his Myanmar choice, Smile As They Bow by Nu Nu Yi – the first novel by a writer living in the country to have been translated and published in the US, and shortlisted for an international literary prize, despite the best efforts of the Myanmar authorities to suppress it – sounded fascinating. I decided it was the book for me.

Set around the Taungbyon Festival, a massive celebration of nats (spirits) that happens in a small village near Mandalay three times a year, the novel follows Daisy Bond, one of the event’s most famous transgender natkadaws (spirit mediums), as he sets out to make the most of the extravaganza. A master at parting gullible and superstitious visitors from their money, the aging dancer puts on the performance of his life, ably assisted by his very much younger bodyguard and lover Min Min. But when his partner begins to fall for a beggar girl at the festival, Daisy’s precarious existence looks as though it may be about to crumble once and for all.

Yi’s sensuous descriptions of the hurly-burly of the event are a joy to read. Bustling with the interior monologues of a whole host of people – from the rich woman seeking spiritual guidance on what to do about her husband’s mistress and the elderly devotee fretting about the cost of the flowers she has had to offer, to the pickpockets moving through the crowds – the narrative bumps and jostles the reader so that you feel as though you are in the midst of the action.

Into this vibrant scene bursts the voice of Daisy Bond, easily one of the most irreverent and fabulous literary creations you are ever likely to meet. Buzzing with expletives, contradictions and fears, his distinctive interior monologue paints a complex and moving picture of a lifestyle that is at once based around a sham and yet a source of fulfillment and meaning. Bluntly honest about the fact that natkadaws such as he ‘deal in lies and pushing people to offer animals’ and ‘cook up crazy hopes ’cause we have to eat’, Daisy’s descriptions of his love of performing and the self-expression he finds as a transgender medium reveal that for all the cynicism of the cons he peddles, what he is doing has surprising value and significance – much like the festival itself, which though reinstated by the British ‘to create a diversion’ in colonial times has become a source of hope and a way of making a living for thousands of people.

This duality is particularly apparent in Daisy’s illicit relationship with Min Min (homosexuality is still illegal in Myanmar). Despite his frequent abuse and humiliation of the youth whom he bought as a teenager seven years previously, Daisy’s dependence on and feelings for the young man are clear. It is testament to Yi’s skill as a writer that, even though we want to see Min Min break free and follow his own desires, we cannot help feeling pity for Daisy, for whom ‘the gay life carries such heavy karma’ and who is perpetually haunted by the thought that his love is ‘going to leave [him] for a real woman’.

The result is a powerful, moving and memorable work that more than deserves its place on the Man Asia Literary Prize 2007 shortlist. It is an insight into a world of extremes, where conflicting truths weave together and catch the eye like spangles on a spirit dancer’s costume. Highly recommended.

Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi, translated from the Burmese by Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye (Hyperion, 2008)

Just after I’d finished reading this book, I had an email from a Liechtenstein publisher. ‘Now who recommended the Liechtenstein authors to you?!’ he wrote. ‘That’s embarrassing!’

I assume the reason for his embarrassment was that the only two authors with named books on the list were non-native residents of Liechtenstein – the German thriller writer CC Bergius and the Austrian explorer and mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, a controversial figure who joined the Nazi party shortly before the outbreak of the second world war. Yet, as I tried to explain in my response, there was method in the apparent madness of these suggestions, and it went something like this:

The search for a story from the tiny principality of Liechtenstein began with an email to a friend of a friend from the country, who suggested I contact an old teacher of hers who was involved with PEN-Club Liechtenstein. Sadly, the email address she gave me no longer seemed to work and my inquiries bounced straight back at me.

Time for plan B: I’d heard that a Liechtenstein author, Iren Nigg, had won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2011. Perhaps some of her work would be available in English? I dropped her a line and she very kindly responded. She was sorry, but other than the extract of her work in the prize-giving booklet, nothing had been translated yet. She attached the extract in case it was suitable for the project, but if I was looking for a complete work in translation, she recommended I contact her friend writer Stefan Sprenger (there’s a great interview with him about Liechtenstein literature on the Dalkey Archive Press website).

I emailed Sprenger but it was the same story with him. Although he had had some isolated pieces translated, none of his books were available in English in their entirety. To his knowledge, the only Liechtensteiner who had had a whole book translated into English in recent years was Prince Hans Adam II  von und zu Liechtenstein. His political treatise, The State in the Third Millennium, would not count for my purposes unless, he joked wryly, I were willing to consider it as a horror story.

Failing that, Sprenger suggested emailing Dr Peter Gilgen, a Liechtenstein academic specialising in literature and philosophy at Cornell University in the US. If anyone would know of Liechtenstein work available in English Sprenger warranted Gilgen was the man.

Gilgen came back with a full and thoughtful reply. No book-length Liechtenstein prose translations came to mind but he did know of a prose-poem, The Gravel by Michael Donhauserwhich was translated into English as a freestanding work some years ago. However, given that this was hard to find and not a prose work as such, he would like to suggest Bergius and Harrer, as both writers lived for many years in the principality. Indeed, Harrer, who claimed to be ashamed of his Nazi involvement in later life, was a member of PEN Liechtenstein and wrote his most famous work, Seven Years in Tibet, while living in the state.

And so it was, as I explained to my indignant correspondent, that I had included Bergius and Harrer on the list. However, if he could recommend another Liechtenstein work that I could read in English, I would be delighted to consider it.

Several weeks later, I have not heard anything further. And so, taking the risk that an email may be winging its way to me even now and hopeful that this post may winkle out some full-length Liechtenstein fiction for us Anglophone readers to enjoy, I am writing on Harrer’s memoir Seven Years in Tibet.

Given the tortuous route I’d taken to get to it, Harrer’s book about his attempt to make his way into the closed world of Inner Tibet felt like a rather appropriate read. Starting with his internment in and repeated escape attempts from an Indian prisoner of war camp at the outbreak of the second world war, the memoir charts Harrer’s flight into the country and his eventual arrival in the capital Lhasa, despite the best efforts of the Tibetan people, the hostile landscape and the occasional bear and leopard to stop him. Building a life in a society not thought to have been visited by Westerners before, Harrer and his companion Peter Aufschnaiter fell in love with the peaceful country and Harrer was even appointed to be a private film tutor to the young Dalai Lama, until the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1949 forced them to return to Europe.

Harrer’s matter-of-fact accounts of his feats of derring-do are the secret of the book’s success. Whether he’s enduring recapture by the British, outwitting a band of Tibetan Khampas (robbers) on a lonely plain, or chasing a run-away yak in sub-zero temperatures, the writer remains stoic and restrained, observing after one disastrous episode with the Indian police, ‘we learned from this adventure a bitter but useful lesson’. Indeed, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his meticulous approach to each challenge and his dauntlessness in the face of countless setbacks. I found my fingers itching to write ‘stiff upper lip’ in the margins several times, before I remembered that this was not a British book and that the writer, had he been in Europe instead of South Asia during the years he describes, would most likely have been doing his best to make a number of stiff upper lips tremble.

Harrer’s insights into  Tibetan culture are, for the most part, fascinating. From polyandry among herders and the ‘burial’ practice of smashing a body up and leaving it out to be eaten by the birds, to the strange communication arrangements you have to make in a country that is not a member of the Universal Postal Union if you want to send a letter to the outside world, Harrer’s descriptions are engrossing and his love for the country is clear.

That said, the book is very much of its time – and of Harrer’s own prejudices. Sweeping and often patronising generalisations abound about Tibetans being ‘a happy little people full of childish humour’, their music having ‘no harmonies’, and their women, who ‘know nothing about equal rights and are happy as they are’.

But perhaps such a cast-iron belief in your own judgments and opinions is what it takes to be a pioneer. A more circumspect individual might have decided, on balance, that it was best to stay in the POW camp and wait out the war. I’m very glad he didn’t.

Seven Years in Tibet (Sieben Jahre in Tibet) by Heinrich Harrer, translated from the German by Richard Graves (Flamingo, 1994)

Dominica: myth making

August 22, 2012

An unusual picture today, but I couldn’t resist showing you how colourful this book was inside. I found it after a search for a Dominican writer other than  Jean Rhys, who is far and away the most famous literary daughter the small island has produced. Her widely read classic Wide Sargasso Sea – the story of the early life of Bertha Rochester, the first wife of  Mr Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – is rightly celebrated and studied as a work of great merit and skill. If I hadn’t already read it and several of Rhys’s other novels, I would have jumped at the chance. But I’m only reading writers I’ve never read before this year and, besides, I was curious to see what else Dominica had to offer.

My search took me to an intriguing website called the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences, which hosts a microsite dedicated to Dominican writers dotted around the world in an effort to build links and enrich the local literary scene. Several of the writers listed, all of whom, as far I could make out, no longer live in Dominica, sounded interesting.

But then I saw The Snake King of the Kalinago on the list. It was apparently a reinterpretation of one of the island’s traditional creation myths, as told by the children in Grade 6 at Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica. Having heard of some other children’s writing schemes in countries where the publishing industry is still relatively small-scale, such as the Unbound Bookmaker Project in the Marshall Islands, I was intrigued to see what a book produced through one of these initiatives might be like.

Bringing together history and ancient myth, the storybook tells of an unusual relationship between Bakwa the giant snake king and the Kalinago people of the island. Having proclaimed himself guardian of the people, Bakwa stands up to the French settlers of centuries past, but his anger and the bows and arrows of the islanders are no match for the guns and swords of the Westerners. Facing defeat, Bakwa retreats to his cave to sleep, only to wake again when the world is finally at peace.

The imaginative use of everything from natural landscape features to historical events really makes the story sing. Using a rock formation on the shore that looks like a giant staircase as the setting for Bakwa’s first emergence from the sea, the myth is literally grounded in the island. This is complemented with some beautifully quirky descriptions, such as the invaders’ galleons on the horizon looking like ‘three massive fish on the sea’, and the vivid illustrations, which are taken from Yet We Survive: the Kalinago People of Dominica – Our Lives in Words and Pictures edited by Mary Walters.

Coupled with this, and giving the work a touch of childish authenticity, is that wonderful shrugging impatience children have when they are uninterested in an aspect of a story and keen to get to the main action. Bakwa, we learn, decided to make his home on Dominica simply because ‘he was no longer comfortable in the sea’. Nuff said. No doubt several of our novelists could learn a thing or two about concision from these young writers.

Nevertheless, I did find myself wondering about the process by which this book was generated. Was this story created as a group exercise orchestrated by a teacher/editor? Was it stitched together by a grown up from a series of individually written pieces? The acknowledgements shed very little light on this and I felt a little frustrated as a result. Without an understanding of the process, it seemed hard to draw conclusions about the finished book as I had no idea whether I was dealing with work primarily by children or a skilled editing job.

Still, the book made me smile. It’s certainly brightened up the shelf. And if the exercise, whatever form it took, prompts even one of those students to put more words on paper in future, it’s got to have been a good thing.

The Snake King of the Kalinago by Grade 6 of Atkinson School, Bataka, Dominica (Papillote Press, 2010)

Colombia: the crazy truth

August 20, 2012

When it comes to South American literature, Colombia is definitely one of the hot spots. Birthplace and stomping ground of the great Gabo (Gabriel García Márquez to you and me), the country boasts a talented crop of writers, despite a tradition of rigorous government censorship – according to the File Room100 Years of Solitude was itself banned by the Colombian authorities in the 1970s.

Among this group of authors, Laura Restrepo caught my eye. An outspoken political journalist, Restrepo spent six years in exile in Mexico after receiving death threats because of her work. Her novels, which have won numerous awards, are known for mixing the insights she gained into Colombia’s criminal underworld as a reporter with elements of the fantastic or uncanny. It sounded like a compelling combination.

Restrepo’s 2004 novel Delirium starts with a bang. Middle-aged lecturer-turned-dog-food-delivery man Aguilar arrives home from a short trip to see his children to find that his young wife Agustina has gone mad. The rest of the novel – which weaves together four narratives and draws the reader through a involving in Bogota’s drug-trafficking network, clairvoyance, sadism, murder, and a tortuous family history stretching back two generations – pieces together the reasons why.

If you want an example of lean, powerful storytelling, then Restrepo is the writer for you. Working dramatic irony, time shifts, character voice and objective correlatives the way a gymnast moves through positions on the parallel bars, she delivers a mesmerising performance that will have you gripped right from the realisation that ‘something irreparable had happened’ in the first sentence to the breathtaking dismount of the final chapters.

Restrepo couples this narratological agility with a dexterous empathy that enables her to present both the inner workings of mental breakdown and the toll such events take on those closest to the sufferers. Whether she is leading us through the dark lair of Agustina’s childhood demons or Aguilar’s uneasiness about her sudden unpredictability and sense of ‘not knowing what bubbles are bursting inside her, what poisonous fish are swimming the channels of her brain’, the writer is committed to finding new routes by which to bring us close to the experiences she portrays. Her description of Aguilar’s fears about how Agustina’s illness has affected her feelings for him is particularly vivid and inventive:

‘I was afraid that if I could enter into her head, like a doll’s house, and walk through the compressed space of the various rooms, the first thing I’d see, in the main room, would be candles the size of matches lit around a little coffin holding my own corpse, me dead, forgotten, faded, stiff, a Ken-size doll in Barbie’s all-pink house, a ridiculous Ken abandoned in his tiny moss-green living room, I myself moss-green, too, because I’ve been dead for a while.’

The author’s talent for presenting thoughts and emotions in striking ways pays dividends when it comes to tracing the twisted strands of family history that have led to the tangle of the present. What might be an unwieldy and dry chronicle in the hands of another writer is immediate, troubling and strange in Restrepo’s work, with each character, no matter how peripheral, picked out in arresting detail. There is the obsessive musician grandfather who goes out walking wearing two hats and the mother who speaks to Aguilar on the phone as if he is a care assistant rather than her daughter’s partner.

The result is a compelling novel about consequence; about the way what we think of as our private quirks and imperfections can bounce and ricochet off others sending them careening down a giddy slope to their ruin. It is a gripping and haunting piece of work. Oh, and it’s a jolly good yarn too…

Delirium (Delirio) by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Vintage, 2008)

How do you choose one book from a nation of 1.2 billion people – a country that is one of the most culturally rich and diverse in the world and a country, that, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit West Bengal last year, is so varied in its constituent states, let alone across its 1,269,219 square miles, that it makes a nonsense of the term ‘nationality’ as it is commonly understood?

I’m afraid I still don’t have the answer to this question. I struggled with it long and hard. As the suggestions of Indian writers poured in from visitors to this blog I did my best to research and weigh up each one. All to no avail: the more I looked into the many excellent and intriguing Indian authors whose names I’ve heard this year, the more impossible it seemed to limit my selection to just one work. An Indian friend of mine kindly posted my dilemma on Facebook and yet more names flooded in. The truth was, I could have spent a decade reading Indian literature and still barely have scratched the surface of the literary delights this country has to offer.

One thing I did know: I wanted to read the work of an author who was prized and celebrated in India rather than one who had made his or her name outside the country. As Tim who recommended Kushwant Singh just this week put it, ‘rather a lot of the “Indian” writers beloved of the international literati seem to live in London or New York’. Talented though many of these authors are, they didn’t chime in with what I was looking for: I wanted to read the work of someone who wrote primarily for Indian readers.

With this in mind, one among the many comments I’ve had about Indian literature stood out. It was from Suneetha:

‘I am from India, and I note that both the suggestions in comments and your list for India reads are those written originally in English. I have to say these are just second best to what regional literature we have here in over 23 official languages and a couple of hundreds of other languages spoken across the country.’

This struck a chord with me. After all, if I was looking for an Indian writer who wrote to be read by his or her compatriots, surely I should choose something written in a regional language, rather than the international lingua franca of the country’s colonial past? And so it was that I plumped for a novel by one of Suneetha’s favourite authors: the much decorated Malayalam novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.

Kaalam (Time), which won Nair the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, follows Sethu Madhavan as he leaves home for college and tries to make his way in the world. The expectations of his rural village rest on his shoulders and his excellent academic record seems to promise him a bright future. Yet, as the years pass and Sethu staggers from one failure to another, consoling himself with a series of hopeless love affairs, his potential seems to tarnish and warp and he grows disgusted with his life. At last, obliged to return to the family home he has spurned for so long, he is forced to face up to himself.

MT (as he is known) excels at presenting experiences that are at once universal and very specific to his characters’ time and place. Readers everywhere will recognise the adolescent Sethu’s embarrassment at his relations’ eccentricities – his aunt who lies scantily clad on the verandah, for example, and his mother who grumbles whether anyone is listening or not – and his desire to hide his poverty from his friends, as well as the perennial graduate’s dilemma of needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience.

What makes MT’s portrayal of these relatively commonplace rites of passage is his insight into the inconsistencies and contradictions that wrestle beneath the surface of all of us as we seek to move through life. From Sethu’s exasperated interior monologue in the face of an interview panel, to his stilted encounter with a friend who left education long before him and is now married and running a company, the author is a master of the tricks we use to disguise our shortcomings and the way casual questions and pleasantries can strike a person to the bone. This is particularly evident in MT’s depiction of his protagonist’s dealings with women: Sethu’s delight in the ‘illusionary obstacles’ that mask the impossibility of his feelings for teenage Thangamani and his wild justifications of his cruelty to his first love Sumitra both point to the self-delusion that keeps him crashing blindly, wilfully on.

These insights are couched in scintillating descriptions, which make the novel a joy to read. There is the loveless married couple for whom ‘words had become brittle showpieces in a glass case, to be used only on special occasions’, the minutes that ‘swam before [Sethu's] eyes like bubbles distilled from the indistinct colours of sunset clouds’ and, perhaps my favourite of all, Sethu’s numbed reaction to his mother’s death: ‘The news stood just outside his mind like a traveller in search of shelter’.

The editorial decision not to explain culturally specific terms in the text but instead to confine their definitions to a rather incomplete glossary at the back means that readers from other parts of the world may find it hard to work out some of the roles of and connections between characters. There are also some gremlins in the e-edition, which mean that odd words have been misrepresented, making for some rather strange sentences that have to be read twice to tease the proper meaning out.

These glitches in no way hampered my enjoyment of the novel, though. If anything, the initial confusion I felt over the interrelationship of the characters is an added bonus: it means that I will have to read the novel again now that I’ve got them sussed. I’m already looking forward to it.

Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty (Orient Blackswan, 2012)


Say the words ‘Kenyan writer’ to most world literature fans and they will come back with one name: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Imprisoned for speaking out against injustice and corruption, the author of such landmark books as A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow abandoned English to write in his first language Gikuyu in the late seventies. He is revered around the world for his work and his passionate advocacy and has been given many awards, seven honorary doctorates and held numerous visiting professorships.

It seemed a no-brainer that I would read one of this literary giant’s novels as my Kenyan choice. But then I heard about Philo Ikonya. Arrested repeatedly for her human rights activism and living in exile in Norway since 2009, the poet and novelist is an avid blogger and journalist, as well as a keen linguist. She is also president of PEN Kenya.

Intrigued though I was to read the work of Kenya’s great man of letters, Ikonya and her oddly titled novel Kenya, Will You Marry Me? piqued my interest. I decided to give it a go.

In a nutshell, the novel is a love story. It gives an account of a life-long passion for and relationship with the country Kenya in all its exuberance and raw pain. Growing up in a village near Nairobi, the young narrator uses dolls to act out and embody some of the conflicts she sees around her, while flashes forward and backward in time and stories from other relatives and friends bring home the personal consequences of such traumatic events as the attempted coup of 1982 and the humanitarian crisis in the wake of the rigged election of 2007, as well as the long shadow of colonialism. Hurt but not discouraged by all that she has seen, the young woman transforms herself into the embodiment of Change during the course of the narrative, urging her fellow countrymen and women to get behind her and appealing to the nation she loves to unite itself with her.

Nationhood and what it means to belong to a country bind the narrative like the spine of the book. Frequently speaking about Kenya as a person, the narrator emphasises that ‘history and politics live in homes’, showing how events in parliament pervade even the bed sheets and the cooking pots of the most remote villages. This sense of the interconnectedness of national and domestic events is coupled with a great love and celebration of the beauty of the land and, as the narrator’s grandfather explains, a ‘greater love [which] is to realise that these are only ours for some time and that your children must find them still here’.

As a result of her intense connection with her country, the narrator feels every threat to its wellbeing as a personal attack. This leads to a barrage of righteous anger against the injustice of colonial rule, the heartlessness and corruption of politicians, the cruel rapes suffered by many of the country’s women and children, and the fact that ‘people gifted with melanin continued to be left out of the game’. Often, this takes the form of powerful, rhetorical addresses in which the narrator apostrophises various groups in her effort to galvanise them into positive action, taking in everyone from her dolls and her compatriots, to corrupt politicians and even Western readers:

‘You, most of you, in the West have the comfort of analyzing what you call deception, we are grateful for the small straws of hope we see near us. We cannot afford to shun all.’

Ikonya’s poetic sense comes through strongly in the narrative, adding subtle layers of meaning. Whether she’s playing with rhymes to make deeper points – ‘I have never been able to hear the word “bribe” without seeing “tribe”. Vice like lice lives in families too’ – or stripping back the etymology of place names and sexual terms to reveal the power struggles that lie beneath, she uses words richly, milking them for every last drop of significance.

Readers unfamiliar with Kenyan history and politics, as I was, will sometimes struggle to follow the narrative, which is often essentially a stream of consciousness ‘crisscross[ing] years, beating arrangements in books’. In addition, the novel’s fragmented and free-flowing nature means that there is often very little to drive it forward other than the narrator’s passion. The fingers begin to itch to flick in the last third where earlier polemics on corruption and women’s rights are reprised without much development.

Nevertheless the commitment and fervour of the narrator carry the day. As a portrait of patriotism, this stands in stark contrast to the rather anaemic if not downright cynical expressions of national pride we tend to hear in the UK. It is an urgent reminder of the importance of politics and the influence that individuals can have on events larger than themselves. No wonder the people in power felt threatened.

Kenya, Will You Marry Me? by Philo Ikonya (Langaa Research & Publishing Common Initiative Group, 2011)

 

This was one of several recommendations from Bernard Minol at the University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop. Although I had not found many Papuan books in my initial searches, he was keen to stress that there is a thriving publishing scene on PNG – and the large number of recommendations that he and his colleagues gave me certainly seems to bear this out.

Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes) by Regis Tove Stella follows Perez, a young Papuan man, as he arrives in the Australian capital to take up a postgraduate scholarship. Disorientated and homesick, he sets up home with three other wantoks (literally ‘one talks’ – speakers of the same language in Tok Pisin) and the friends set about making a new life in a culture very different from their own.

But as the days go by, they become increasingly uneasy. Ghostly presences in their flat and rumours of a murder there in years gone by set them on edge. More suspicious still, there seems to be an odd connection between the dimdim (white person) Kate who befriends Perez, her friend Wilmott and life back home…

The clash between Western culture and traditional Papuan life is the central theme of the book. Coming from a place where ‘the belief in ghosts and spirits is part of daily existence’ and ‘women fly at night’ to 21st century Sydney – where CCTV cameras capture every move, homosexuality is accepted and immigrants are treated with suspicion and sometimes downright racism – the students discover much to challenge, unsettle and alarm them. Sometimes this can be very funny, as when Perez dreads meeting an anthropologist because of his memories of the Western academics he encountered back home:

‘Since a child, I had always dreaded anthropologists with their long white beards, round-shaped glasses which conjured up an image of a white monster, watching every move ready to pounce on you. Whenever I saw photos of Father Christmas, I immediately connected them to anthropologists and gradually I also dreaded Father Christmas.’

Such light-hearted observations, however, are indicative of a much deeper sense of disenfranchisement born of a conviction that Papuan culture is treated as little more than a specimen by much of the rest of the world – something to be prodded at, picked over and interpreted in Western terms. ‘It is through their eyes that the world sees us, not our own eyes’, says Perez, explaining to Kate: ‘Many outsiders have written about my country out of their private visions [...]. They just want their friends to believe they are great explorers and discoverers.’

This leads to a great deal of resentment, which is articulated through lengthy passages of conversation between the friends in which they frequently express (sometimes unjustified) criticisms against the Western world. While Stella tries to balance this by having Perez emphasise that the concept of ‘crooked eyes’ – or skewed perspective – is common to all people, and therefore likely to be true of them too, the lack of characters or events to counteract the accusations is problematic. The dialogue is also frequently repetitive and stilted, as though the friends are talking purely for the benefit of the reader peering in on their cosy world.

It’s a shame, because when events drive the narrative forward, the book is compelling. The early section, where Perez moves into the flat on his own and experiences some uncanny occurrences is gripping. Sadly, though, this momentum is not carried through into the latter half of the book. Here, the increasingly labyrinthine plot, which takes in tribal chiefs, lesbian abuse, long-lost relatives and a paedophile ring, becomes ever more difficult to buy into. This is not helped by shaky motivation for some of the characters’ decisions. Some readers will also find the male characters’ casual expressions of misogyny and homophobia difficult, although they may of course be further evidence of the young men’s ‘crooked eyes’.

Perhaps the issue goes back to the central theme of the book. By using the Western novel form to tell a Papuan story, Stella may have highlighted the limitations of the ‘dimdim  way of doing things’ when it comes to cultures where storytelling is predominantly oral. Significantly, as has been the case in several other novels I’ve read from countries that were colonised by Western powers in the past, Stella puts some of the dialogue in the latter stages of the book in the characters’ mother tongue, Tok Pisin, thereby shutting the English-language reader out from these exchanges. It’s as though the novel form itself is an imperialist throwback, which exerts rules and constraints that writers from countries where it is not the traditional form of storytelling may prefer to disobey or subvert.

‘That’s what’s wrong with you dimdims. You don’t believe in other cultures,’ says Perez. Perhaps he’s got a point.

Mata Sara by Regis Tove Stella (University of Papua New Guinea Press and Bookshop, 2010)

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